Reflections on Labor Day from Desolation Wilderness

With the weekend festivities having come to a close, looking back, Labor Day really is a curious holiday. In comparison, Independence Day celebrates the birth of a nation, Memorial Day commemorates those who fought for our freedom, and Martin Luther King Day celebrates one of the greatest civil rights activists this nation (and world) has ever seen.

How many Americans, however, can give a definitive answer as to why we celebrate Labor Day? A holiday which has questionably lost sight of its original meaning (much like chocolate bunnies being associated with Easter), Labor Day in modern terms seems to translate into BBQ, boating, and the start of college football season, which don’t get me wrong, are all great things.

Somewhere between the third bratwurst and the fourth beer, however, I doubt very many of us take that moment to pause and reflect on what we’re actually celebrating. First signed into law as a national holiday by President Cleveland in 1894, it’s a day meant to honor and reflect upon that tireless bastion of success and freedom, the everyday American worker.

So this past Labor Day, in order to properly reflect on this, I knew I was going to have to remove myself from the social atmosphere, lest my reasoning be skewed by the ambiguous merriment. No BBQ. No beers. No boats. I was going to have to go someplace I could actually hear my thoughts.

Living on the shores of California’s Lake Tahoe, the swollen lakeshore that consistently drowns under inflatable rafts and EZ-up tents was not going to be the place. I needed somewhere removed from the crowds and the usual scene; somewhere where Labor Day was still just called Monday.

Somewhere, like Desolation Wilderness.

One of the West’s truly wild places, the name alone screams of empty solitude. 64,000 acres of glacially formed lakes and craggy granite peaks, it’s one of the few remaining areas you can still find the endangered sound of silence.

Grabbing an old pair of hiking boots, three bottles of water, and a hopefully unnecessary can of bear mace, I amble off down a Desolation Wilderness trailhead ready to get back to nature and properly ruminate on the concept of work.

About a mile up the trail on a scree filled switchback overlooking Fallen Leaf Lake, my gaze to the horizon is suddenly interrupted by a golden eagle gliding on the thin morning breeze. Above the rare predator, a commercial jet paints a long set of contrails across the gaping blue sky.

I think about the first settlers who walked amongst these hills, and wonder if they could ever have comprehended the speed with which we now travel. They arrived in this wilderness by wagon, train, horse, and steamboat, all willing to work towards achieving the American dream. A trip that once took weeks we now cover in hours, all thanks to hard working laborers on a factory room floor who piece together metal eagles that now race across the sky.

Taking a long quaff of water from my blue Nalgene, my eyes wander into the dense canopy of pine wrapping its way around the mountainside. Examining the thin dirt trail below, I reflect on the fact that even this stroll through the woods which I’m taking was at one point considered part of going to work. For the original Native American tribes who relied on this land to survive, a walk through the woods was all part of a greater task. Food, water, and shelter were all derived from these hills, and this mountainside high in the Sierra was all part of their greater office.

Startled by a loud knocking from above, I peer up the rotted trunk of a tree that’s in dire need of autumn rains. High atop the branches, a lone woodpecker repeatedly drives his face into the hard wood, which I realize, strangely enough, is all part of his line of work.

I realize that this far back in the forest the only sounds I hear are those of nature working all around me. The same sun that’s searing my shoulders is also melting the high mountain snows, in turn slowly feeding the stream I hear which has worked to carve this alpine canyon. Similarly, the spiderweb I walked through half a mile ago was the proud handiwork of an animal who has just seen his hard work instantly erased.

On a trek where I intended to leave labor behind, I instead find myself completely surrounded by it. I suddenly bask in the luxury of a day free of work, because as the forest has managed to bring to my attention, though we are all still a part of nature, nature isn’t given the luxury of rest. As strange as it all may seem, there is no Labor Day for woodpecker.

Summer in the Sierras: 6 Tahoe Adventures for Outdoors Lovers

Anyone with a pair of skis or snowboard pants has probably heard the names: Heavenly. Northstar. Squaw — world-renowned winter resorts that sit on some of the finest powder in North America. Luckily for anyone in need of a 12-month adrenaline fix, it’s the summer months in Lake Tahoe where the outdoor adventures really start to heat up, hence, a list of six Tahoe adventures that will keep the blood pumping until next season’s first snowfall.

1. Mountain Bike the Flume Trail

For anyone who is familiar with the Lake Tahoe basin, the concept of mountain biking during the summer months should come as no surprise. For many, taking two wheels to the steep downhill of the Sierras is a way to fill the adrenaline void that’s created by the closure of the fabled ski runs.

While there are myriad trails that form a complex network of singletrack running throughout the Sierra, none of them are quite as famous or awe-inspiring as the five mile ridgeline that forms the Tahoe Flume Trail. Formed by 19th century lumber workers needing access to the region’s bountiful timber, water flumes were utilized as a way to transport heavy logs down to lumber mills in the Carson Valley. Though loggers no longer dominate the peaks and ridges of Tahoe’s eastern shore, the trails they cut and left behind lay waiting to be explored.

The Flume Trail is a 13-mile, one way ride that can be combined in conjunction with sections of the Tahoe Rim Trail. The trail starts at the 7,000′ elevation at Nevada’s Spooner Lake, and bikes, maps, and equipment are available from Flume Trail Mountain Bikes. The trail begins with a substantial 1,300′ climb to pristine Marlette Lake, its placid waters rung by towering pines. The trail traces the perimeter of Marlette Lake before turning to singletrack on the knife-thin ridgeline that offers sweeping views of 193 sq. mile Lake Tahoe. High above the turquoise waters of Sand Harbor and the oft-photographed boulders that run the length of the lake’s undeveloped eastern shore, it’s nearly impossible to avoid periodic rest stops simply to marvel at the view.

2. Tackle a stand-up “downwinder”

Rapidly gaining momentum as Lake Tahoe’s most popular summertime watersport, the clear, placid waters of this alpine lake provide the perfect theater for a peaceful morning paddle. While much of the stand up action on the lake involves novices who’d prefer to stay close to shore and in calm waters, one of the Tahoe’s true water thrills is navigating a long section of the lake on a stand up paddleboard with the gusty alpine wind blowing at your back.

Though the morning hours in Tahoe can be eerily calm, most afternoons provide ample wind out of the southwest to create 2-4 ft. lake swells that paddleboarders can ride from one point on the lake to another. Popular runs include Dollar Point to Tahoe Vista, or Homewood to Cal-Neva point on the California/Nevada border. While the Lake Tahoe area has an increasingly popular summer race series, the granddaddy distance race on the lake is the Tahoe Fall Classic, a 22-mile paddle marathon that runs the length of the lake every September.

3. Jump off of a mountain

The summertime thrills in Tahoe aren’t exclusively found either on land or in the lake–for some, they even take to the skies. Though there are a fair number of daredevils who engage in dramatic displays of cliff jumping in the deep waters off Rubicon Point, a different set of aerial enthusiasts routinely launch themselves off of lofty mountain peaks that overlook the lake in the ultra-adventurous sport of paragliding.

For anyone across the country who has ever strapped a wing to their back (as the paragliding chutes are known), paragliding Lake Tahoe is one of the most rewarding, challenging experiences that a paraglider can find in the lower 48. While considered to be one of the nation’s most scenic spots to fly, the large amount of air moving over the Sierra crest, mixed with the hot air rising off of the Nevada desert, creates dangerous thermals and pockets of air that can really ruin a paraglider’s day.

4. Hike the Tahoe Rim Trail

While the mountains around Lake Tahoe contain segments of the 2,650 mile Pacific Crest Trail, hikers that don’t have six months to devote to walking the West can opt for a shorter–albeit still lengthy–loop of the lake on the well-maintained and remarkably scenic Tahoe Rim Trail. While many hikers each year take advantage of the campgrounds scattered around the trail and tackle the entire 165-mile loop in a single shot, most mortals opt to spend a long day hiking one of the Rim Trail segments that run in the more manageable 14-25 mile range. Maintained by the Tahoe Rim Trail Association, each year the group organizes 14-day “thru-hikes” for those who want to leave it all behind and spend two solid weeks soaking up the beauty of the Sierra.

5. Surf Lake Tahoe

Yes, you read that right. You can actually surf on Lake Tahoe. Not wakesurf, or standup paddle surf, or even windsurf, but good ol’ fashioned lay down on your chest and stroke into some waves style of surfing. While the strongest storms blow through Tahoe in the frigid winter months, strong summer winds that gust over the ridges of the Sierra on certain days provide waist-chest high waves that any longboarder would be stoked on.

As the prevailing summer winds blow from the south-southwest direction, Tahoe “surf breaks”–ironically just like in Hawaii–are located along the North Shore of the lake, with sandbars from Tahoe Vista to Sand Harbor lighting up with windswell on a strong enough storm. Though early summer snow melt can make lake temperatures warrant wearing a wetsuit through at least the end of July, the combination of warmer late-summer lake temperatures (up to 68 degrees) and an early fall storm is enough to send landlocked surfers up and down the Sierra scrambling to find their favorite board.

6. Ski the backcountry

Once again, yes, you read that right. One of this summer’s most unique outdoor thrills is strapping on the skis and taking to the Tahoe backcountry. With the Tahoe area receiving record amounts of snowfall this past winter (over 800 inches at some resorts), many of the area’s off-piste runs are packing enough of the white stuff that skiers and snowboarders will be able to click into their boots deep into the summer.

For the first time in 18 years, Tahoe ski resorts such as Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows were open for business on the 4th of July, and even through the end of July backcountry areas such as Mt. Rose, Desolation Wilderness, and Mt. Tallac still have enough snow cover to warrant the long hike up. There’s really no telling how far into the summer Tahoe skiers who are frothing for winter will be able to make this record powder last. Fortunately for them, once it’s finally all gone, they’ve got plenty of other summer adventures right outside their doorstep.